Review: ‘Dreamcatcher’ is a harrowing, but inspirational journey

PARK CITY. The breakout hit of the 2009 Sundance Film Festival, Lee Daniels' “Precious” was an intriguing tightrope act on the threshold of misery audiences could withstand in a movie that was still fundamentally meant to be life-affirming. 

Already acquired by the extremely busy folks at Showtime, this year's Sundance World Documentary Competition entry “Dreamcatcher” is another test for that precarious balance. 

Full of moments that are sure to cause cringing and wincing, sure to push some viewers to an empathetic breaking point, “Dreamcatcher” does, indeed, manage to unfold with a consistent sense of uplift thanks to Brenda Myers-Powell, its featured subject. Because of Brenda Myers-Powell, Kim Longinotto's film is finally quite inspirational, though the journey is through such muck as to make you question the darkness of human nature entire. 

Brenda Myers-Powell was molested as a child, pushed into prostitution as a teen and stuck in a cycle of drug addiction and abuse that have left her unable to walk without a limp. Brenda was stuck in The Life for 25 years and, with the stories she tells us, the wonder is that she's alive at all. 

But Brenda Myers-Powell is more than alive. Working with her best friend from rehab, Brenda navigates a van through Chicago's darkest streets, trying to help women in a similar situation. The van is part of Brenda's Dreamcatcher Foundation and the help Brenda is trying to provide runs a wide gamut. Would she like to encourage other prostitutes to go into rehab and start their lives over again? Yes. But failing that, Brenda is willing to just distribute condoms or offer the women an understanding ear and a cup of coffee. This is a world so bleak that light can come in tiny pinpricks or blasting rays and Brenda is prepared to be whatever these troubled women want her to be.

In addition to traveling with the van, Brenda also runs after-school sessions with at-risk girls and visits incarcerated women. At every stop along the way, she's able to tell her stories and those stories empower these girls and women to tell their stories.

And oy. I don't know any other way to put it than, “Oy,” because that's what my notes say over and over and I suspect that most viewers will feel similar emotions articulated in whatever your equivalent of “Oy” happens to be.

There are prostitutes remembering stabbings. There are kids of middle school age recalling sexual abuse dating back to kindergarden and earlier. There's a pregnant prostitute who can't stay away from crack. And then there are myriad variations on children who feel betrayed by their ill-equipped parents, but also know that there's nothing better for them out in the system.

Brenda's job — and it's a volunteer job, which pretty much makes her a saint in my book — is to be a receptacle for these stories, to listen and smile and encourage and offer hope, which she does through a very “Good Will Hunting”-esque therapeutic repetition that what's happening isn't their fault. She isn't reenforcing a victimization narrative, so much as encouraging women of all ages to feel that the value that men have stripped from their lives is still there, can still return, hasn't been permanently destroyed.

I don't know what kind of magic Longinotto and her small crew — The director, two producers and a soundperson — were doing, but just as Brenda is able to get women to open up to her, the filmmakers were able to insinuate themselves so invisibly that viewers are made to feel like they've been thrust surreptitiously into the middle of the most intimate of conversations. I don't know how many people refused to sign waivers or refused to talk in the vicinity of cameras at all, but there were more than a few times when I watched a story in “Dreamcatcher” and came away wondering if I should have been privy to the information at all. My sense is that the lack of guarding and restraint displayed by the subjects in the film is a part of the ownership that Brenda wants them to take over the experiences. Not only is what has happened not their fault, but it's something that has to be discussed, that can't be buried in shame or repression.

There are choices and exclusions in “Dreamcatcher” that I don't quite understand.

Brenda's best friend and Dreamcatcher partner is a non-factor. She's there in the background of some shots, but she's been elided from the story. All of the details of Brenda's own rehab and recovery, in fact, are smoothed over or unmentioned. It's very interesting that Brenda is offering hope and salvation of sorts, but religion is entirely absent from her message and I can't help but feel that if it was there, it should have been included, but if it was absent, that's a part of the story as well, one that needs exploring. There's an institutional side to what Brenda's doing, but we're not supposed to wonder about it, I guess.

Brenda's husband is also in the background, but either he didn't want to be a part of the documentary or Longinotto didn't want to include him, but he's a part of the documentary's conflicted approach to men in general.

The documentary's major male character is former pimp Homer, who wasn't Brenda's pimp, but was besties with her pimp. After 13 years out of the game, Homer is still a smooth talker and a snappy dresser. Brenda makes it clear that he's a tie to a dark chapter from her life, but she doesn't discuss any of those specific memories. While she lets us know she's using Homer, who comes to speak to her different groups, it doesn't feel like Homer is taking all that much personal responsibility. 

Generating even less introspection is a brief and almost crushing segment with Brenda's brother, an obviously shady figure, and her either sister-in-law or just her brother's baby-mama. Brenda's inability to do anything about a situation this dark, this close to her is a complication to the heroic arc Longinotto wants to present, but sometimes can't quite finesse.

Brenda is willing to be open and confront so many things, but when there are gaps that she either can't or doesn't want to deal with, either Longinotto doesn't want to push or doesn't want to show her pushing.

There are gaps in “Dreamcatcher,” leaps in time and characters who go unexplored. But if you don't notice those gaps, it's because we're willing to accept them to go along on the journey with Brenda. Whether leading her after-school kids in song or pondering which of her various wigs go best with her day's missions, Brenda is more positive than any person in her position could reasonably be expected to be. 

Longinotto, also the cinematographer here, captures Chicago, especially at night, with a nightmarish beauty, one complemented by so many of the stories we hear throughout. As the name of her foundation suggests, Brenda is the hope that a dream might still be salvaged within that nightmare. She's persuasive enough that you come away focusing on her and not on the misery or even on the gaps in the story. Narrative films can feature actors in star turns, but documentaries can as well. Brenda's a star.

Other Sundance 2015 Reviews:
“Digging For Fire”
“Prophet's Prey”
“The Wolfpack”
“Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief”
“Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck”
“Slow West”
“The Amina Profile”
“The Hunting Ground”
“The End of the Tour”
“A Walk in the Woods”
“Finders Keepers”
“How To Change The World”